Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Promises and Perils of the Anticanon

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Promises and Perils of the Anticanon

Article excerpt

In The Development of English Drama in the Late Seventeenth Century, nearly a quarter of a century old but the most frequently cited source in this collection, Robert D. Hume scolds critics of Restoration drama "content to ignore all but a tiny minority of the relevant playwrights" (13). Such myopia by-and-large defined the field, Hume pointed out. Etherege, Congreve, and Wycherley received plenty of attention; Vanbrugh, Farquhar, Dryden, and "even Shadwell" received some, but not much (14). Hume's indictment was prescient: "To claim to characterize a period by analysing three to seven writers selected on the ground that posterity remembers them seems arbitrary and unsound" (14)--a proto-new-historicist credo if there ever was one.

Hume had no reason to say so, but eighteenth-century drama post-Farquhar wasn't doing much better. A lack of interest in Fielding's drama and in plays by farce-writers, sentimentalists, topical tragedians, and female dramatists of any sort created the sense that nothing much had happened between Farquhar and Goldsmith save the enriching of Gay, the gaying of Rich, and the licensing of the stage. Critics did not find these phenomena inviting. Then as now, The Beggar's Opera (1727) resists our critical gimmickry; and a generation unembarrassed by aesthetic criteria might be forgiven for having regarded the Stage Licensing Act (1737) as separating dreary blank-verse tragedies of imprecise political resonance from (among other unpleasantries) dreary blank-verse tragedies of no political resonance. Confronting the torporous heft of, say, Thomson's Edward and Eleonora (1737) on one side of the field and Home's Douglas (1756) on the other, critics punted. Goldsmith and Sheridan did not lack for attention, but the critical methods applied to post-Restoration drama were as "arbitrary and unsound" as the methods that troubled Hume.

No one needs to be told that things have changed, although the impetus has come from a felt need for ideological reprioritizing rather than a commitment to battling "unsound" methodology. It would be silly to claim this collection as a guidebook to the Current Dispensation (if there is one), but it does seem fair to cite it as evidence of an accelerating rejection of a canon that Hume rightly deemed insufficient. Robert Marldey's reconceptualizing of the old canon of Restoration comedy; the more recent and expansive work of Paula Backscheider, Richard Braverman, and Rose Zimbardo; the rediscovery of Fielding's drama by Hume and Albert J. Rivero; the explosion of interest in female writers generally, female playwrights specifically, and Aphra Behn more specifically still; the mainstreaming of gothicism and sentimentalism--these and other factors have moved us further from restrictive models of canonicity, particularly with respect to the earlier part of the "long eighteenth century."(1)

Recent collections have done their part. Abetted by the surge of interest in Behn, Mary Anne Schofield and Cecelia Macheski's Curtain Calls: British and American Women and the Theater, 1660-1820 (1991) helped correct an old canon hostile to female playwrights. J. Douglas Canfield and Deborah C. Payne's Cultural Readings of Restoration and Eighteenth-Century English Theater (1995) offered an assortment of rereadings and exhumations, nicely balanced in terms of gender. For better or for worse, the present collection goes a step further by disregarding the old canon, even as a point of resistance. Hume's "three to seven" canonical playwrights of the Restoration (14) are absent in any substantive sense. Goldsmith and Sheridan are absent altogether; so is Gay. Behn, whose full dramatic corpus has only recently appeared in print, merits barely a mention. (Indeed, Jean I. Marsden suggests that the kerfuffle about Behn has kept us from appreciating Behn's contemporary, Mary Pix.) And when Fielding does appear, he appears as a writer whose fiction owes much to his drama, not as a dramatist per se. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.